Kevin Brophy: Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion

Carlton: Five Islands Press, 2008, 96pp.

Kevin Brophy is a Melbourne poet who, in the course of four books published since1992, has become progressively more interesting. I don’t use the adjective, Melbourne, in a casual manner. His poetry is deeply connected to his mother-city in all kinds of ways not the least biographically: as one of the biographical notes says, he grew up in Coburg and lives in Brunswick. And the first poem of his first book (Replies to the Questionnaire on Love) looks as though it is establishing as the ground of his poetry not Melbourne but the delimited suburb of his everyday life:

. . . . .
Last week a woman staggered from one house
with blood on her face.
She washed at the garden tap
while someone watched from behind a front window blind.
A woman from the flats next door
stands on the street with her mouth open for hours.
I sweep broken glass from the gutter
before I drive my car away.
The council planted trees along my street
and on the next morning they were lying, uprooted
as though they had tried to fly away during the night.
. . . . .

This poem almost lays out a host of images which could only be followed up narratively. But it also introduces a perspective more suited to poetry. At the end, when a nephew from the impossibly-alien suburb of Doncaster asks about the broken glass, he is told “This is Brunswick . . . where life is as fine as railyard dust”. In other words, instead of dissolving into infinite particularity, the poem suggests an image that will serve Brophy well: the continuous processes of entropy (another poem speaks of the “sandstorm of the years”) that reduce everything to a dust coating a surface. (Infinite particularity is something I’ve always thought of as a Melburnian vice, the counterpart to that intense sense of belonging to a small area and being acutely aware of differences between suburbs, football clubs etc. I can remember Alan Wearne’s brief biography in Australian Poetry Now saying that he was born and educated in Blackburn South and then continuing “the South is important”.) It is true, of course, that dust from Melbourne’s Brunswick will be slightly different to the dust of, say, Brisbane’s The Gap, but the process is a general one. Brophy’s second book (Seeing Things, 1997) begins with a poem called “My Mother Says” which does for Brophy’s life what “As Fine as Railyard Dust” did for his suburb: it lays out a set of experiences which might be the nucleus of a personal narrative or a poem:

. . . . .
Lizards in the back lane spiders in the back yard
tadpoles in the creek rats in the tip, nature grey or black
creeping metamorphosing dying in shoe boxes and jars.
My mother says I convinced her once
that I’d been delayed by aliens
on the way home from school.
And then to be left-handed.
What kind [of?] luck was this?
Each inky word smudged away as I wrote it.
To be left-handed is to know that everyone has taken sides.
Are the memories in the croaking head on the ground?
Or in the flapping body tied to the line?
Will I write with my left hand or my right hand today?
Aiming an axe-blow at the memories I miss the past.

Brophy’s poetry is all about the balance between the particulars of a finite, localised existence and the larger patterns of the universe. Perhaps, in a sense, all poetry is like this – strung out between particular perspectives and broader ones. It’s just that in Brophy’s work you feel the local component very strongly. This begins with a postwar Irish-Catholic upbringing and continues into a modern, highly localised present. Fewer major Australian writers than you would think are called Kevin.

One of the characteristic gestures of Brophy’s poetry is to move upwards, a move that takes you away from the immersion in the local perspective and to more of a God’s-eye view. A delightful poem from the third book (Portrait in Skin, 2002) is called “Up There” and it details the experience of trying to fix a leak in the roof of fellow-writer, Myron Lysenko. The poem slowly moves from one perspective to the other:

. . . . .
Up there, on the open palm of your roof,
lifted closer to the face of God
or closer to some eye that looks
at everything but changes nothing,
we must have understood the universe takes care
of everyone, even its poets taking words like coins
from chimney sweeps, like candlesticks from bishops.
Up there, where the universe must know what it’s doing,
we could shake hands with trees
. . . . .

If I had to guess at the shape of Brophy’s poetic development, I would suggest that his poetry has deepened and become more engaging as the local and particular has moved from being externalised subject matter to being a cast of mind that simply inflects any treatment of the experience of living in the world. This means that the poems become less focussed on their external subject and are freer to accrete structures and ideas. As his books progress, the number of predictable poems – portraits, narratives, satires, descriptions etc, decreases and the number of genuinely surprising poems increases.

 

The title of this new book, Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion, suggests, however, not so much an increasing interest in being-in-the-world so much as an increasing interest in abstraction, the world inside the head and even metaphysics. The book is framed by two poems about poetry, a sure sign that methodological and epistemological issues are at the forefront. Both of these poems are amusing and important. The first, “Difficult”, is about the poem as object: the metaphor used is that of a house which might be bought or visited. Significantly, it is not done as a satirical piece crossing a real-estate agent’s patter with the serious issue of the status of poetry. In fact it is a complicated little poem that moves away as the reader tries to grasp it. Although the writer has left – that is, readers will have a free hand interpretatively without having to worry about intention – the house is full of the signs of lived life: “a green bin steaming with the evidence of wasteful life / in a corner of the kitchen is what you’ve come to expect from art.” Most interesting is the conclusion:

A green and oily ocean’s creeping closer every century
and an ochre desert lies less than three thousand kilometres away.
It is difficult to know what is the greatest threat to this poem:
reader, silence, landscape, weather or its absent occupant.

This struck me as a surprise when I first read it and it still comes as a minor shock. One of the satisfying features of this book (and a sign of its quality) is the ability of its poems to take entirely unpredictable directions and this is no exception. The logic of the concern with erosion (a localised form of the generalised entropy of the universe) is a surprise in this poem but it is no surprise in the context of Brophy’s poetry generally.

The book proper begins with four poems based on holidaying in the Victorian uplands. They each belong to the comic genre of the city-dweller brought blinkingly out from his suburb into the bush. This, though, is never the driving force of the poem: it remains a delicately nuanced undertone. Everything is slightly sinister:

. . . . .
The kookaburras watch like cops on a stakeout.
The wombats move so slowly we do not see them.
The stars are too close, too many, spilled everywhere.
The river runs like a perfect machine past us.
. . . . .

but there is a familiar, strong sense of dissolution. The houses slowly become derelict and “House, River” actually deals with a visit to an abandoned house and, as it does so, describes the poet’s position in the middle of this process: “all I am is this visitor who touches / nothing, notes some things and backs out”. The image for this process (and shared by each of these poems) are the holes dug by wombats or miners: “always there is this going inside”. Even the past itself slips down muddy holes in the earth. In terms of the larger issue of the sort of ideas that generate this approach, it might be significant that this emphasis on dissolution occurs in poems which are set in a location which is both non-suburban and high. The mountain view of this group of poems, might well connect with the view from the roof.

At any rate, there are other poems in the book which involve an interest in the high and low perspectives. A sestina about being strapped at school blessedly avoids any comment on the brutality of the Catholic education system in the early sixties and rotates – in that weird and obsessive way that sestinas do – about issues of high and low. The boy has to lift his hand up but thinks of his own shoe laces which are unlike the teacher’s and “frayed and unravelled, offer no sign of higher / aspirations”:

. . . . .
We learn the virtue of respect by lifting an arm or
prayerful mind, any small gesture of attention
to the higher life or the closer matter of our laces.

“Shoe Laces” is followed by “Repaired and Disconnected”, an equally complicated poem. It is a meditation about the experience of relying on technology: of living, as the poem itself says, “in a city of engineers” and amongst others “who believe in engineers”. There is an elevated example – people in an aeroplane – and an earthly one – a man having heart surgery. Quite a lot goes on with these two images and the notion of being disconnected but I’m intrigued by the way in which the material about the airline passengers is concluded by the image of the aeroplane – disconnected – falling out of the sky. The writer imagines this but also imagines that the scraps of the plane are tidied away by “an authority designated to do just this” so that there is no real evidence of its ever having happened. Again elevation is connected to entropy and, in a way, the parts of the plane fall like the “railyard dust” in the first poem of Replies to the Questionnaire on Love. The idea of cleaning away the ground-down detritus of the processes of existence forms the image at the heart of “Manual Work”. This poem, which might have been merely cute but which resists that fate impressively, is about those who, at night, clear away the tears, the dead animals and even beggars

for gods at night must empty their pockets of misfired creations
knowing they will be scraped and swept
and carted away before dawn.
It’s the dark, the dark that keeps the sweepers in a job.
They open the hand of day for us. We hide until they’ve gone.

Entropy can manifest itself, of course, as the death that awaits us all. At this level its true poetic expression is the elegy. And there are plenty of deaths and monuments in this book although, significantly, they are not generally used as opportunities to sketch in the life of the departed one. They are much more abstract than this. One of these poems describes the processes of a funeral and has an odd and disturbing conclusion:

A woman murmurs to her companion about a spider
that moved across the cover of a book on her desk
as though it had emerged out of the cover illustration.
Could that happen? she asks.

The best I can do with this is to note that the scariest irruptions involve the movement into our lives of something that previously seemed contained in another dimension. Death turns out to be active even though it had always seemed to belong to another, order of existence.

A very fine poem, “Monument”, also deals with a burial but is concerned that even the stone monument will be worn away by the rain:

We filed into a chapel much like any chapel.
Six men lifted the box up like an ark.
Afterwards we stood round trays of biscuits in a circle.
Under a porch other circles smoked and hunched because
the rain came down as though erasing this hour
would be enough. The rain was all there was.
No monument of stone can stay carved forever,
the rain will see to that, or a board of management.
Our dead will live then die with us we know.
The grave like love is more puzzle than testament,
its stone more frail than we can show.
The rain, the rain came down on us
a perfect monument forgetful of us.

The rain, symbolizing entropy, eradicates everything, eventually. It is intriguing though that in this generally abstract meditation the poem includes a little barb at managerialism: “the rain will see to that, or a board of management”. It is as though the poem arcs back to anchor us in the world of the small citizen of a Melbourne suburb meshed in the usual earthly battles with local councils, state governments and so on.

If entropy is associated with rain and the elevated perspective, death is associated with night. The dead, in the poem of that name, meet up during the night to shuffle around and they speak to us in dreams. Night is a complex state in Brophy’s poetry: it connotes domestic contentment (at the end of “You in Sleep”, for example) but it is also one of the states in which we are the vehicles for words and stories that we channel. Speaking of poetry, “Translations” says:

In this language the gods and spirits take an interest in us.
This speaking we do is another way of dreaming.
. . .
Our speech, we say, keeps arriving, a mystery.
In this language another world speaks to us.

Finally, there is a strong theme throughout this book, of that point where metaphysics and epistemology meet. There are scattered poems interested in a kind of sterile perfection possible only in the mind. Here the railyard dust has been wiped away and, as “Surfaces” says, “the cleaning of surfaces is a return at last / to the dustless paradise of a room in the mind / where thoughts like new appliances / are sleek and modern”. This theme can be found in the title poem, but it is present also in poems like the slightly Wallace Stevensish “Tulips” (“The tulip does not know the theory of tulips”) and also in poems like “The Mental Life” and, especially, “Plums, Prams and Camels”. This poem seems to describe a world of Platonic perfections:

Every colour made and re-made each day
and the shade kept dutifully below the trees;
each green spike of grass kept pencil sharp
and sand obeying laws of softness;
fences resting their long selves
against trees intent on filling plums with juice -

This paradise is ruined by the real world in the form of an intruder who breaks into the poet’s bedroom:

In our bedroom almost on the street
we talked and loved, gave our bodies
to whatever time we had until a man one night
climbed in our bedroom window
seeking peace or petty cash or nothing much
more than his arrival, making us believe
he’d left outside a wild and tired camel -

I believe all this.

It is not a poem to feel entirely relaxed inside but I read it as the irruption of the actual world into the abstraction of an ideal world. It is also, then, about how the real – in the sense of the gritty particulars of, say, a Melbourne inner suburb – can demand entrance into a poem. Interestingly, the “real” does not make the predictable demands of the local environment – it brings with it, instead, the surreal phenomenon of a camel. A most intriguing poem.

There is a lot more going on in Mr Wittgenstein’s Lion than these observations suggest. Like all good books of poetry it includes puzzlement as one of its effects. In fact it is the poems which shift gear in unpredictable ways that remain most defiantly with me. I’m thinking of small, slightly tangential, poems like “Bloodthoughts” and “Finger-mind”. And then there is the lyrically beautiful “The Hazy Ships” which announces the ships in the title and then ignores them to talk about a trip to the beach until they make a sudden and surprising reappearance in the last line. And then there is the significantly titled “After Rain”:

There are six thousand languages still spoken on the planet
and within each one the word for rain makes people look at the sky.
As it rains outside the radio talks low in the kitchen,
those small dry voices going on, reassuring me.
When the rain is here the sound of it is better than thinking.
My son asks me if a baby could be taught to speak
every language on the earth and we agree it might be possible
if the rain keeps up to teach a baby anything we wish.
The rain makes pairs of us, it muffles wars and panics ants;
the rain gives all its knowledge to the earth;
and after rain the birds around here have much to say.
They’re out there now like children let out of a classroom,
shaking themselves on Anna’s roof and in the bottlebrush
where there must be mouthfuls of insects like lollies in the air.

There are none of the expected meanings here. Rain is associated, not with the slow processes of decay but with a kind of teacherly and familial closeness. The theme of language – entirely unexpected in a poem like this – weaves its way throughout. Even the conclusion is a surprise because, good as a cosy day inside is, the newly-washed world outside, full of epiphanic promise, is better.